Tensions were high among Buncombe County’s commissioners and staff as they met Jan. 10 to consider worker compensation policy.
The county’s efforts to improve recruitment and retention among health and human service workers have mostly been successful, according to Drake Maynard, a consultant, and Lisa Eby, the county’s human resource manager. Along with Social Services Director Mandy Stone, they reported to the commissioners that since 2005, the county has saved money by attracting more experienced job applicants and reducing turnaround. The department has done so by bringing salaries, benefits and other incentives in line with what departments in the state’s other most populated counties offer, according to Stone.
Just 31 percent of social worker applicants in 2006 had prior work experience in the field, she noted. In 2011, that number had jumped to 100 percent, she said. The result was better service, and a savings of roughly $1.26 million to taxpayers over those five years, because experienced workers take less time and money to train, and they tend to have higher retention rates, she explained.
However, challenges remain in other divisions of the department, particularly with nutritionists who work in the WIC program, Eby noted. “The turnover rate is 40 to 60 percent,” she reported. “It’s high. It’s unacceptable.”
In response, Commissioner Holly Jones praised the report as “fantastic,” peppering staff with questions about what can be done in the future to continue to deal with challenges and to make progress.
“I’m wide open to thinking through how we develop a menu that meets those different needs, and not one size fits all,” she said.
However, later in the meeting, in response to County Manager Wanda Greene’s request for more direction, Jones appeared frustrated with some aspects of the county’s personnel policy.
“I hope we will fix our policy, that does not recruit well, when you have to have a six month waiting period for health insurance. It’s wrong,” she asserted. “We’re going to be forced to go to three months, thank gosh, because the federal government tells us to. … But that’s not a recruitment tool. That’s pitiful.”
Jones also expressed dismay with the commissioners’ decision last year to freeze entry level pay, apologizing for her own vote in support of that measure.
“I didn’t ask enough questions about that,” she said. “I didn’t understand the nuance of what that meant to attract EMS workers, the skilled people in public health that we need. … I voted to freeze entry level salaries and I now know that that was a bad, bad message. I hope we can undo that as a board.”
And as she did last month in a memo and email newsletter, Jones also criticized the county’s two-tiered system of health insurance benefits and longevity pay, which gives greater coverage and bonuses to employees who were hired before certain dates.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” she asserted. “That doesn’t seem like a very good recruitment tool. We have to protect our taxpayers and our county, our investments. But let’s do it right. To kind of create this kind of two-tiered system, at a time when people are so hungry for work, it just doesn’t seem fair to me.”
In addition, Jones expressed frustration with how county government operates, in more general terms.
“It makes me so irritated to feel like asking questions, somehow means I’m going to try to destroy a system, or undermine employees. I’m asking questions, and I’m going to keep on asking questions. That’s what I was elected to do, in my humble opinion,” she declared. “Let’s celebrate the milestones that we’ve reached, but what about going forward?”
In response, Greene stood up to defend the personnel policies, many of which were orchestrated by her.
“Most of the counties have gone to a two-tiered system, whether its longevity or vacations,” she maintained. “We have 1,400 employees and they do feel like their benefits are being threatened. It makes it hard to keep moral up and keep them working and focused. … They love the work that they do… And I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the packages we put together, and how we changed them going forward.”
Tearing up a bit as she spoke, Greene added: “This is really emotional for me. But thank you for supporting the workforce and I’d love for them to feel confident that they can depend on the benefit package that they have and can get back completely focused on work.”
Commissioner Carol Peterson also cried as she spoke in response, acknowledging that several of the county’s department heads were in attendance.
“To be hurt in anyway by this commissioner – or I think by the majority of the commissioners sitting here, as far as your compensation package, your benefits, your work conditions – I want you to leave here today and I want you to spread the word that in this commissioner’s opinion, that’s not going to happen,” she said. “I want each of you to know how much we appreciate you.”
Over the objections of Jones and Board Chair David Gantt, Commissioner Bill Stanley then immediately ended the meeting, making a motion to adjourn that was supported by Peterson and Commissioner K. Ray Bailey.
The meeting was technically a continuation of the Jan. 3 session, which meant that there was no need to conduct a public comment period. The county didn’t include the compensation report on the Jan. 3 agenda or provide any information on its website about what business would be considered during the Jan. 10 continuation.
Photo by Bill Rhodes